Book review: Ruth’s Journey

“Ruth’s Journey: The Authorized Novel of Mammy from Margaret Mitchell’s ‘Gone with the Wind’”
By Donald McCaig
Published By: Atria Books, A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
ISBN: 978-1-4516-4353-4
Review copy provided by publisher

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

From the man who gave us “Rhett Butler’s People”, a version of “Gone With The Wind” written from Rhett Butler’s point of view, the creative mind of Donald McCaig has given us a plausible backstory for the faithful Mammy, Scarlet O’Hara’s beloved black nurse, who raised her and her two sisters. She was also mammy to Scarlett’s mother Ellen Robillard and her two sisters. But she wasn’t always the big, black slave woman in charge of a white woman’s babies.

Her life began on the island of Saint-Domingue during the slave revolt, before it became Haiti. Captain Augustin Fornier of Napoleon’s army went on patrol one day and found a pitiful hut of black slaves who had been slaughtered, either by rebels or French soldiers in search of plunder; the only survivor was a beautiful little black girl of four. Captain Fornier took the child home to his young bride, Solange Escarlette Fornier (yes, she was Scarlett O’Hara’s grandmother, but no, she was not named after her, but her father’s mother Katie and his grandmother Martha Scarlett).

Solange was delighted with the little girl and named her Ruth. She became a companion and ladies’ maid to the aristocratic French woman, who, like her future granddaughter, was not beautiful but had very striking looks and a mind of her own. Like Scarlett, she was also accustomed to getting what she wanted, by any means possible. After discovering that the sugar plantation her husband had inherited was burned to the ground, she resorted to creative means to get herself, her husband and her little slave girl out of Saint-Domingue. She allowed herself to be caught in a compromising position with the gay nephew of her husband’s commanding officer. The old general was so grateful to her for “straightening out” his nephew, he gave her husband and his family permission to accompany the young man on a British ship transporting French gold to Paris. From there, it would sail on to Savannah, Georgia, where Solange would nudge her wimpy aristocratic husband into a profitable business with a fellow refugee, Pierre Robillard, who would become her third husband, after poor Augustin was slain in a duel over her dubious honor by Wesley Evans, the man who would become her second husband and die in an unfortunate accident, which may or may not have been brought on by the declining price of cotton, in which he traded. In between all these shenanigans, Solange would bear three daughters, one from each husband, and become the talk of the town.

As for Ruth, she was the faithful mainstay of Solange until the day she met a freeman named Jehu Glen, an apprentice of the English architect Solange’s second husband hired to build the pink house his bride demanded. By then Ruth was fifteen, slender and beautiful, and nanny to Solange’s firstborn daughter Pauline. Jehu was so smitten by her that he bought her from her mistress, who by then was a widow in need of money, her second husband having died in questionable circumstances. Ruth and Jehu moved to Charleston, where Jehu went into business as an architect. They were married in the African Methodist Episcopalian Church by Reverend Morris Brown, another freeman. They had a baby girl, whom they named Martine. Ruth worked as a mammy for the children of Colonel Jack Ravanel, a well-known horse trader always on the lookout for a winning race horse. Everything was perfect, until the slaves revolted in the summer of 1821.

Jehu and Reverend Brown were involved in the revolt, though only on the sidelines. They preached rebellion, but didn’t raise a hand to the whites. Other blacks did, however, and the white masters panicked and began rounding up every black, slave or free, who was associated with the rebels. Ruth’s husband was hanged, along with many others, and she and her little girl were seized and sold along with the rest of his property to defray the cost of his execution by the state. I was surprised to learn that marrying a freeman did not automatically free a slave woman back then. A freeman who bought a slave woman had to emancipate her like any other slave master, even if he married her. If Ruth’s employer, Colonel Ravanel, hadn’t come to market that day to buy a horse, she would have been brought by a stranger. But when he saw his daughter’s mammy up on the auction block, he had to buy her. Unfortunately, he got there too late to buy little Martine; she was bought by an upcountry farmer for forty dollars. Ruth never saw her child again.

Shortly after being purchased by Colonel Ravanel, Ruth saw her kind mistress and the little girl she cared for killed by a new horse her master had brought to win races, after Mrs. Ravanel mistakenly hitched the wild stallion to a buggy and was unable to control it. After the deaths of Mrs. Ravanel and her daughter, Ruth cared for the Ravanel’s baby son. But when the lonely widower got too drunk and frisky with her after his misbegotten horse had won a race, she let him know that she was nobody’s whore, even if she was a slave. Appealing to her master’s pride and sense of honor, Ruth demanded and got permission to return to her original mistress in Savanah, where she found Solange newly married to Pierre Robillard and expecting again. So she moved into the now completed pink house with Mr. and Mrs. Robillard and took up residence in the nursery with their two daughters. When the third daughter, baby Ellen, was born, her mother died in childbirth, leaving Ruth as the only strong, motherly presence in that household.

Losing her own little girl made Ruth determined to protect the little girls in her care. Especially Solange’s last born daughter, who grew up to be the sweet-natured Ellen Robillard, who married Gerald O’Hara on the rebound after her first love, her wild young cousin Philippe Robillard, was killed in a barroom brawl in New Orleans. Gerald O’Hara, who had recently won a plantation in a card game back in Clayton County, came to Savanah to visit his brothers and look for a wife, a high class one who could turn the dilapidated farmhouse he had named Tara into a home. After a lavish wedding and a torturous trip on the railroad, Ellen proceeded to do so, with Mammy Ruth’s help.

So much for the first two parts. For parts three and four, McCaig switches from third person POV to first person narrative, allowing Ruth to tell her own story in Southern Black dialect, which I found jarring. Why couldn’t he continue to tell Ruth’s story from her POV? All that “Black Speak” can be confusing to someone who wasn’t born in the South, and can be misinterpreted as insulting by someone who was, and is Black as well. Nevertheless, the rest of “Ruth’s Journey” is fascinating, as we learn how Ellen and her faithful Mammy managed to turn that old farmhouse into a gracious Southern home, along with the details of how Ellen’s firstborn, Katie Scarlett O’Hara, grew up to become the belle of the county after being the biggest tomboy in the county.

There was one disturbing part where Gerald O’Hara reads aloud from a local newspaper to one of his neighbors, quoting a speech from Abraham Lincoln who was then running for senator of Illinois. In it Lincoln reassures his Southern constituents that “I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races”. He goes on to say that he is not in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes, qualifying them to hold office or intermarry with white people, and that there is “a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality”. When Gerald asks his neighbor what he thinks of Mr. Lincoln, the man replies wryly, “I think he wants to be elected senator.” So much for the Great Emancipator! If I hadn’t read this same quote on Facebook back in February, when someone had the audacity to publish it on President’s Day, I would have thought McCaig had made it up. But he didn’t, which proves that a politician can change positions to follow whatever position the majority of voters currently favor. In other words, Lincoln and his fellow politicians of that era were just as capable of bowing to political expediency as today’s politicians. This shouldn’t surprise me, but it does, and it disappoints me as well. I guess I’m still used to thinking of him as Honest Abe, the Great Emancipator who freed the slaves. But he didn’t do it because he hated slavery, he did it to demoralize the South and make sure they had no free slave labor to help them in the war effort, nor in the Reconstruction period afterwards.

Despite this inconvenient truth and others I found distasteful (like Solange nearly being denied her monies transferred from France to America by a male chauvinist pig of a banker, because she was a married woman and men of that period customarily took control of all a woman’s money and property upon marriage. Solange had to point out a clause in her pre-nuptial contract designating her as a Fem Sole, enabling her to hold property under her own name, exactly like an unmarried female heir or a widow), “Ruth’s Journey” is a good read for those interested in history as well as historic romance. If only Mr. McCaig had maintained his third person POV narrative to the end, or began his novel with Ruth, now the elderly Mammy, speaking to some younger mammy or a white fellow writing a book about the Negro experience during the Civil War, it would have given his narrative more consistency. My desire for consistency is not the hobgoblin of a small mind (my mind is as broad as any other educated female of the 21st Century), but merely a wish to enjoy a historic romance in a seamless fashion.